I'm never going to be able to hear balloons popping or cars backfiring without ducking under a table. Ever again.
"Come on! We're going to be late. I promised Taylor and Gina we'd be there and take photos. I want a good seat, and it's bound to be popular." It was 9.50am on Sunday, 27 July 2008, the day of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church's production of "Annie Junior". The children and teens of the church, along with our sister church Westside UU, had been working on the play at their summer theatre camp for the last two weeks. My friend Gina had done the choreography, but had had to go to Florida before the performance. I was tasked with making sure I took plenty of photos and reviewing the play for her, a task I didn't mind a bit.
We went into the sanctuary which, as I'd expected, was crowded with people. Most were TVUUCers, a fair amount were from Westside, and there were friends of the cast who had come to see them perform. Everyone was happy.
At the door, the ushers were giving out programs. Greg McKendry handed David his program with a smile. We liked Greg. He was a tireless worker for the church, intelligent, always looking for ways that he could make a difference. He and his wife Barbara were in the process of adopting our friend Taylor, who had been a ward of the state and had gone from foster home to foster home, seeking stability and a real loving family. He'd finally found it in the McKendrys.
The seats that we usually took on the right-hand side had a large sign on them that said "Reserved for Cast Members", so we sat in the front row on the other side of the sanctuary.
It was 10.00am. Time for the service to start.
A member of the church board came up and made some announcements, including that the collection would be taken up before the performance as they didn't want to interrupt it halfway through. There was laughter, and people willingly put money on the collection plate.
Then the microphone was handed to TVUUC Music Director Vicki Masters, who had both produced and directed the play. She spoke briefly about the theatre camp and introduced the play. Then she sat down and the overture began. It was 10.10am.
The orphans came on and the first scene began. Annie came on, comforted them, and they sang "Maybe". Then Miss Hannigan came in. It was 10.15.
She said her first line, and then we heard a loud noise from the right-hand side of the sanctuary.
People looked up, puzzled. Was is a sound equipment malfunction? Part of the scene? I'd never seen "Annie", so I had no idea what to expect. Vicki got up to see what had happened. Then she screamed "Get down, everybody!"
Then two more sounds.
Then a whole lot of screaming and running.
David said to me urgently "We need to get out. Now!"
I grabbed my bag and coffee cup and went quickly out the fire exit door to the left of the stage. As we left, I could smell something burning. We came out onto the lawn by the car park. I still had no idea what was going on.
David said, "There was a guy with a shotgun. I saw him."
The rest of the afternoon is a series of images. Taylor, running up to us, crying hysterically, yelling "Greg's been shot!" Us, wordlessly trying to comfort him. Parents, hysterical with worry, trying to find where their children had gone. One person going around, making a list of who was present. Brian Griffin, TVUUC's Director of Lifespan Religious Education, calming us all down, leading a prayer and meditation. Police cars, ambulances, and fire engines arriving at the church within minutes. Everybody took out their cellphone, everybody made the call to 911. The first call got through at 10.18am, and the first police arrived at 10.21.
I later heard other things. How when the shooter had arrived, he had first tried to go through the stage door on the right side of the sanctuary, but was turned away. How he had walked past some of the children, taken a 12-gauge shotgun out of the guitar case he was carrying, and started to shoot. How our dear friend Greg had stood there, shielding other people with his body, and been shot at point-blank range. How when the shooter tried to reload his gun, three people (including John Bohstedt, who got him in a flying tackle) jumped on him, followed quickly by more. How at the sound of the shots, one of the older children led all of the others in the RE wing out a back door and up to the neighbouring Second Presbyterian Church. How the injured people had been taken to the University of Tennessee Hospital, which had the best trauma unit in the city.
I started making calls on my cellphone. First, to Gina, to tell her what had happened, and to make sure that her husband Eric was alright. I hadn't seen him, and I was worried. Then my friends Sara and Sean. They had been running late, had got to the church at 10.25 and were turned away at the gate. As they turned the car around, they saw the ambulances arriving. They had called and left messages, wondering what had happened and whether we were alright. Then my family.
Then we all went back to the Fellowship Hall and were talked to by a police detective, who was in charge of the case. He asked if anybody who had actually seen the shooter to put their hand up, and took them away to another room to be interviewed. David went with them. I stayed in the Fellowship Hall, talking to people, giving and receiving hugs, making sure my friends were alright. Then my cellphone strted ringing. The media had gotten hold of the story, and it had gone national. Friends and family needed to know that we were alright, and if there was anything they could do.
All I could ask them to do was light a candle for us, and for Greg, Barbara and Taylor.
I was relying on calls from outside to tell me what was going on. We weren't given any information. Most of us were in various stages of shock and grief. And anger. Lots of anger. All of it directed at the person who had come into our sanctuary and hurt our people.
I was asked to watch Taylor, as he was unable to sit in one place and stay there for very long. I understood his need to talk to others, to find out whether they were alright, to be comforted in turn.
Volunteers from the American Red Cross came in bearing food. People came from Second Presbyterian bringing cold drinks and ice. Everyone felt the need to do something, to help, to feel useful.
I couldn't eat. Not then. It took me until Monday night before I could taste food again.
When we were finally allowed to go, we were directed out the back of the church car park, where the media were waiting for us. I just kept repeating "no comment, no comment" as we drove away.
We went over to Sara's apartment, where she and Sean were waiting for us. Our friend Kat, a trauma nurse, came over shortly afterwards. Together we watched the coverage unfold on the internet and television. We were shaking, tearful, and numb by turns. How could this happen? Why did Greg, a good man, have to die? How could a human being do that to other human beings?
When we saw Greg's picture on the television, it finally hit me, and I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't stop thinking of Barbara and Taylor. How they must be feeling. What could we do to help them?
Later, we went along to a service at Westside UU, where we met up with more of our friends who had been worried about us. All of them had been planning to be at the TVUUC service that morning, and for various reasons, none of them made it along. For this I was truly thankful.
As Kat, David and I entered the church at Westside, a photographer snapped us from behind without our knowledge.
At the service, the Reverend Mitra Jafarzadeh said, "There will be a time for grief. There will be a time for tears. This is a time of shock. I'm not going to tell you where was a great reason for this. I'm not going to tell you there was some cosmic purpose for this. I am going to tell you that it is good to be together."
The following night, there was a candlelit vigil at Second Presbyterian Church for those injured and killed and their families. There were almost a thousand people, singing, holding hands, crying, being a community. Some of them were from TVUUC, some from Westside UU, a few from Second Presbyterian, a few from Temple Beth-El, a few from the local Muslim community, a few from local Baptist churches, and a huge amount of people who didn't necessarily belong to any church, but who had come to show their support.
That, my friends, is community.
And I believe that for that reason, we will get through this. We will all get through this. With support and love, we can and will survive.
After the service, some of us went down to the TVUUC sanctuary for the first time since the shooting. I let the tears flow, and the healing begin.
Rest in peace, Greg McKendry.
Rest in peace, Linda Kraeger.
You were loved, and will be missed.
So ya gotta hang on 'til tomorrow, come what may
Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow!
You're always a day away!